Biocultural Diversity

Photo: Cristina Mittermeier

Photo: Cristina Mittermeier

What do you think of if you hear about the “web of life”? More likely than not, you think of the natural world: the millions of species of plants and animals that have evolved on Earth, interconnected with one another and with the ecosystems in which they live.

But now think again. For millennia, people have been part of nature and have coevolved with it. Over time, we have adapted to the natural environment, while drawing material and spiritual sustenance from it. By interacting closely with one another and with nature, we have developed thousands of different cultures and languages—distinctive ways of seeing, knowing, doing, and speaking. For millennia, local cultures and languages have been intimately, some say inextricably, linked with the landscapes in which people have lived generation after generation.

This is the “true” web of life: the interlinked diversity of nature and culture. We call it “biocultural diversity”—the multi-faceted expression of the beauty and potential of life. Diversity in both nature and culture confers vitality and resilience to this planet, our home, for present and future generations.

Biocultural diversity is a precious gift to cherish and protect—yet, we are squandering this irreplaceable gift. Global economic, political, and social forces are rapidly eroding the health of the world’s ecosystems and cultures, and silencing the voices of the world’s languages. It is a “converging extinction crisis” of diversity in all its forms. The very fabric of life in nature and culture is coming unraveled, leaving our biocultural world increasingly fragile and the outlook for humans and all other species increasingly uncertain. We are foolishly cutting the grass under our own feet.

Indigenous peoples and local communities are affected most directly by the loss of biocultural diversity, but nobody is immune. The effort to restore and sustain the diversity of life in nature and culture is a cause that we all share, no matter who we are and where and how we live. Life is not expendable.

next: What are the links between biological and cultural diversity? >>